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Life Arts    H4'ed 4/4/18

The Racial Politics of Black Panther

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Seen through a racial lens, Black Panther is an important film. Written and directed by black men, it tells a story about black characters in a fictional black land. Hollywood has essentially refused to make such Afrocentric films on the grounds that they wouldn't attract a sufficient audience. Black Panther's box-office success may permanently disrupt this narrative, creating conditions for a more inclusive industry and a wider range of films.

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But there is more to this film, racially speaking, than the racial makeup of its talent and its box-office appeal. Black Panther also offers racial commentary about our own world. To that end, below are six racial dynamics worth noting and unpacking. They are offered in the spirit of better appreciating a courageous film that not only tells an entertaining story but takes on important social issues and questions.

Warning: spoilers ahead.

1. The Black Panther is Black.

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Well, duh! But as Kristen Page-Kirby pointed out, he "is not a superhero who happens to be black. His blackness...goes to the absolute center of his identity..." There is really no white superhero equivalent. There cannot be, given this country's (and this world's!) racial politics. For T'Challa, his blackness and his Wakandan heritage are a source of pride. Other superheroes can exhibit national pride (hello, Captain America), but white pride is off limits for heroes, just as it is off limits for us mere mortals, at least those of us who value being part of the cultural mainstream. This is as it should be. For T'Challa, for other Africans, and for African Americans, racial pride is legitimately earned by overcoming or even just surviving an oppressive history and reality. White men (and women) can be proud too. Many have also overcome oppression and other obstacles, but their oppression was unrelated to their whiteness, and therefore, their pride cannot be related to whiteness either. T'Challa is aware of his blackness and is unapologetically proud of it.

2. The relationship between the Marvel Black Panther and prominent 1960s civil rights groups and leaders is...complicated.

Black Panther first appeared in Fantastic Four #52 (July 1966), three months before the Black Panther Party was formally founded. Though the black panther logo was also used by the Lowndes County Freedom Organization, and the segregated World War II Black Panthers Tank Battalion, there seems to be no evidence that the comic was inspired by either. In fact, despite the similar names and proximate origin, co-creator Stan Lee said "the name was inspired by a pulp adventure hero who had a black panther sidekick". Indeed, sharing a name with an armed, revolutionary, socialist organization was sufficiently inconvenient that Marvel renamed the character to Black Leopard in Fantastic Four #119 (1972). T'Challa explains his reasoning to The Thing thus:

"I contemplate a return to your country, Ben Grimm, where [the Black Panther name] has -- political connotations. I neither condemn nor condone those who have taken up the name -- but T'Challa is a law until himself. Hence, the new name -- a minor point, at best, since the panther is a leopard."

The name change was short-lived, with the Panther returning less than a year later, but it seems that the creative team of the 60s and early 70s found the link to the Panther party more an annoyance and distraction than inspiration.


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For their part, I'm certain that Black Panther Party leaders like Bobby Seale, Eldridge Cleaver, and Elaine Brown would have frowned at T'Challa co-operating with CIA operatives and the U.S. government more broadly. Yet, they would have certainly approved of the first mainstream superhero of African descent and likely found common ground over their mutual concern with the well-being and self-determination of black people. The Black Panther Party was more radical than the comic. How could it not be? Even with a black hero, Jack Kirby and Stan Lee were both white and Marvel was primary targeting a white audience, while the Black Panther Party was black led and clearly focused on the black agenda. But as Jamil Smith aptly pointed out in his piece for Time, "the revolutionary thing about Black Panther is that it envisions a world not devoid of racism but one in which black people have the wealth, technology and military might to level the playing field." With those resources in hand, the Black Panther Party might have adopted very different tactics.

Some writers have suggested that T'Challa's philosophy is similar to that of Martin Luther King, Jr. For example, N.Y. Post's Sara Stewart writes "T'Challa, though, is a pacifist, the Martin Luther King Jr. to Killmonger's Malcolm X." While I have previously made a comparison to MLK when discussing Professor Xavier, in this case I think the analogy, while well-intentioned, is not well informed.

First of all, while Malcolm X would shared Killmonger's concerns about black inequality, by the time he was killed, he had come to realize that allies for the cause of liberation and equality exist across racial lines. Secondly, T'Challa is not a pacifist. To be sure, he does not enjoy violence and spares M'Baku's life in the first ritual battle. And when he lands what turns out to be the fatal blow against Killmonger, there seems to be more mourning and compassion than rejoicing. But he accepts both ritual battles and he is clearly willing to use violence when he puts on the Panther suit to do do battle with Claw and other thugs. A reluctant warrior, perhaps, but T'Challa is clearly a warrior, not a pacifist. And while it's easy to imagine King saying "We are all one tribe," as T'Challa does in his speech to the United Nations, the film offers no examples of him engaging in nonviolent resistance, which distinguished King and his followers from the Black Panther Party, Malcolm X, and Stokely Carmichael, who agreed on the problems but not on the strategies.

None of this is intended as a criticism of either the film or its lead character. King, like the Black Panther Party, was also operating from a position of weakness, relative to the dominant power structure. As the head of a resource-rich, sovereign nation, T'Challa does not need to shame those who hold structural power to do the right thing. He can simply opt to do it, as he does near the end of the film when he decides that he and Wakanda have a moral duty to the world. Upon reaching this conclusion, he decides to focus his energy not on overpowering his enemies but on building an infrastructure that better supports the disenfranchised. This includes African American youth, but it also seems aimed at a much larger international community. Would King have supported such a global strategy? Had he had the resources to do so, I think he would have, but so, I think, would have all the other prominent civil rights leaders of the 1960s. Besides the access to far greater resources, T'Challa has much in common with all of them.

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Mikhail Lyubansky, Ph.D., is a teaching associate professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, where he teaches Psychology of Race and Ethnicity, Theories of Psychotherapy, and a graduate-level courses on restorative justice. An autobiographical essay of Mikhail's interests in race relations and basketball is available here.

Since 2009, Mikhail has been studying and working with conflict, particularly via Restorative Circles (a restorative practice developed in Brazil by Dominic Barter and associates) and other restorative responses to conflict. Together with Elaine Shpungin, he now supports schools, organizations, and workplaces in developing restorative strategies for engaging conflict, building conflict facilitation skills and evaluating the (more...)
 

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